The high and rising cost of education, coupled with a vast range of low-cost options flooding the marketplace, has impelled much of higher education into an “adapt or die” mindset. This is relatively uncharted territory for many institutions. But what they may or may not realize is that a pocket of wisdom might be found in the form of their continuing education divisions.
“Continuing ed has been successful because we have offered a menu of items at all different price points, and we’ve had to make the case for the value of taking this course or that certificate,” says Richard Novak, vice president for Continuing Studies and Distance Education at Rutgers University. “I think the rest of higher ed is now wrestling with what CE has been dealing with throughout its history.”
CE has a reputation for being a “cash cow,” a self-supporting one with a historically entrepreneurial bent that helps it do what the rest of higher ed must now as well: continuously justify its existence, capitalize on opportunity, and adjust according to changes in the market. That’s why, when Rutgers’ on-campus hotel and conference center was running a deficit, it was turned over to the Division of Continuing Studies. The business is now entirely self-supporting and hosts conferences, training programs, and overnight guests.
At Bismarck State College in North Dakota, the department of Continuing Education, Training and Innovation operates the National Center for Energy Excellence, which Carla Hixson, associate vice president of the department, says is run essentially as a business within an educational setting. The center, which offers on-site and online degrees and training, makes up one-fourth of BSC’s student population.
Hixson says her department sees itself as incubator for such initiatives and is now working with the Communication Workers of America to establish a similar, national niche and presence in the telecommunications field.
At Michigan State, continuing ed takes a leadership role within the university through its MSUglobal Knowledge & Learning Innovations division, which operates as a hub helping faculty to create and implement projects that lead to new research and funding.
According to MSUglobal’s director of academic entrepreneurship, this is a potential model for the future: “As the demand and access needs continue to evolve globally, continuing education operations are uniquely positioned to help their institutions adapt.”